Orlando Saez may have honed a position as one of America’s most promising agritech entrepreneurs. When it comes to business advice, however, the best pearl of wisdom he’s received came from a Disney executive: “You need to hire for what you cannot train.” Self-awareness, positivity and hustle are his trinity of traits to look out for. It has driven his latest venture Aker Technologies, Inc, from the very beginning.
Saez, a bright-faced, garrulous Chicagoan, grew up modestly. Vacations were rare. The most exciting trips came when Saez and his folks spent long summers with relatives in Moca, Dominican Republic. They were farmers, and Saez, and his brother, chipped in. “I love the smell of the earth, the feeling of getting lost walking to a nearby river, and pretending to be a worker with a wood stick instead of machete – which I was not allow to touch,” he says.
Saez’ grandparents sold the farm shortly before he attended college at the Illinois Institute of Technology. But the lifestyle never left him. Saez began his career in telecommunications, spending seven years at mobile network heavyweight Boingo before becoming CEO of TravelBlox, a Chicago-based vacation startup, in 2010.
A directorship at Illinois State’s entrepreneurship, innovation and technology wing followed before Saez moved to head smart city startup CityScan, closing a $2m funding within four months. The first in his family to graduate with an engineering degree, Saez developed a keen interest in teaching students about tech. As time passed he noticed that drones drew their best reactions. A bulb lit. “I thought deeply about ways to build a big business with drones,” he says.
In August 2012, however, Saez swapped the skyscrapers of Chicago for Winnebago, a low-slung, hardscrabble town in southern Minnesota home to Todd Golly, a successful 6,000-acre corn and soybean farmer. Saez knew he wanted to work with drones – and farming seemed ripe for disruption. In Golly he found somebody with deep expertise and an openness to change. The pair traveled to the Dominican Republic, where they learned about the difficulties of controlling pests.
“Todd and I came back together to try to solve the problem of automating crop scouting – first in Todd’s own farm and then around the world,” says Saez. “This is how we started Aker Technologies, Inc.
“Today in the USA, it is nearly impossible to become a farmer, unless your family has been farming for generations,” adds Saez. “Land value, commodities prices, equipment capital and operating cash flow needed, are largely the reason for this phenomenon.” Golly’s knowledge, and a clutch of angel investors, allowed Aker to get off the ground in September 2015.
Aker builds agronomic tools to optimize farm production. Using drones and an easy-to-use app, the firm allows farmers to scout crops, share reports, document damage and a host of other features. It has been recognized by brands including Bayer, BASF and WinField United.
With yields in corn and soybeans down, and the farming industry’s general wariness of new technology, many entrant startups hype ROI and other KPIs to get customers on board. Not so Aker. Saez was adamant he would get the product right as a function of real productivity – then automate to reduce internal cost. “My biggest surprise was how important it was to execute consistently, in order to win and retain customers,” he says.
Building a solid customer base is vital, and Aker is concentrating, for now, on the Midwest – America’s breadbasket. A strip of states from North Dakota, through South Dakota and Nebraska to Kansas, provide by far the US’ greatest crop value, with Iowa and Minnesota close behind. Aker works on a freemium model that, when perfected, “will be primetime ready to export anywhere around the globe.”
That does not mean fundraising is easy – and for a self-styled “natural-born marketer” like Saez, navigating the nuances of the VC market, especially in agriculture, has been a slog at times. “We have been able to de-risk our technology, sales traction, capacity and scale potential – all things that you would pencil in an investment memorandum – yet I have a graveyard with dozens of decline responses and unresponsive pitches,” he admits. “Tenancy is essential as well as understanding when is best to enlist help.”
That said, the company achieved yearly revenue goals in April, and pre-sold its entire mapping service capacity to a host of top customers. It hopes to add to $2.6m of existing seed investment soon. “We are fortunate to have multi-year agreements and so our next step is to secure the right investor partner to fuel our next stage of growth to capture the opportunity ahead,” says Saez.
Saez is, unshockingly, a busy man, and he spends any ounce of free time unwinding with music, yoga and meditation. Given that oftentimes crippling schedule, no wonder he hangs on that Disney advice every day. “You need emotional resilience, intensity and clarity of judgement to quickly iterate through mistakes and maintain a high productivity output,” he says. “All this, while scraping by financially. This can only be accomplished with people who you can connect with deeply.” Saez has become an expert in building those connections. It is the driving force behind his current success.